Sunday quote: on discrimination, “the Negro” and American Jews

Americans seem to want laws expressing high ideals but they seem also to want the convenience of ignoring or violating many of them with impunity.

Currently reading: Equality by Statute by Morroe Berger.

Berger argued that law can change society, yet this seems to be in stark contrast to the message from the history that he gives (I’m only about 1/10 into the book, so that may change). He even pointed out these two laws, passed almost a century apart:

Civil Rights Act of 1875:

… all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

The law was changed before society was ready. State intervention did not successfully end discrimination, racists simply found ways around the legislation and everyone else didn’t care enough to stop them.

This leads me to a second thought:

Berger traces the flight of “the Negro” from, as he puts it, “rural poverty and exploitation in the South to urban misery and discrimination in other regions”. The Black Americans* were essentially one step behind the Whites and were moving into industries like manufacturing and mining just as the Whites were moving into the more lucrative trade and finance.

This story is rather familiar to many other groups of people in many other countries – urbanisation has been growing across the world for the past century, however the prosperity that comes with it seems to left behind the traditionally disadvantaged groups. Except for one.

Looking at the biggest law firms in America and you will see a long list of old European Aristocracy-sounding names like ‘Baker and McKenzie’, ‘Jones Day’ or ‘Latham and Watkins’. But then you get to the occasional one that doesn’t quite fit the mould – ‘Greenberg Traurig’, ‘Weil, Gotshal and Manges’ or ‘Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton’. And then of course there’s Goldman Sachs, holding its own with JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley.

The Jewish immigrants into New York in the late 1800s/early 1900s were not the highly-educated metropolitan elites from Vienna and Berlin who thought they had integrated well into European society and were about to get a nasty surprise (if that phrase comes even close to describing the horror of what happened). No, these were rural farmers from shtettles in Poland and Russia. They also were not at all free from discrimination – the universities all limited their ‘Jewish intake’ through quotas and the chances of a Goldberg or a Rothstein being hired by any of the top firms were slim to nil.

So what did they do? They worked. Hard. The poor Lower East Side of Manhattan became full of sweatshops where Jews worked in conditions worse than those in Foxcomm factories. They saved money and sent their children to school and university. The children then found that the old WASP establishment had no interest in employing Jews and so they were locked-out from all of the most esteemed industries. So what did they do? They came together and hired each other, they built their own firms and did it so well that within a few decades they were buying-out the firms that used to refuse to hire them.

As with the Black Americans, that story was similar across the world in the new immigrant nations that were forming. A few things come to mind when I ask this question, but none of them really give a definitive answer: why are we so different? Why were Jews able to impose themselves on the White establishment until there was no choice but to accept them, where other disadvantaged groups just seem so… complacent?

Although the exception, as we’re seeing, are immigrants from East Asia – who look set to replicate the Jewish success of earlier generations.

_________

*I consider “African American” to be quite an offensive term, not to mention a misnomer. Millions of “African Americans” have no African heritage whatsoever. Many more Americans do have African heritage, but are not Black.

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